No sooner than we have declared the dearth of new elite formation, we are presented with evidence to the contrary. Time will tell whether the just-leave-me-be streak of libertarianism is anything but a pastime for eccentric billionaires or whether we are for an age of rule by the no-longer-Aspergers over the long haul.
After closing the last post it occurs to us that a new elite did arise in the West after World Wars – namely the labor elite, whose rise was largely unopposed in the States because the economic pie there was expanding so rapidly due to the Marshall Plan and the prostration of the rest of the nation’s trading partners, and unopposed in Europe because of the prostration of the old elites as a result of the exigencies of war. Since the 1970s, what with the economic landscape returning to the long-run normal of stagnation, labor has increasingly come in conflict with the other major economic elite – the business, with the result that labor has been slowly giving ground in sectors least hampered by top-down regulation.
Now that we have once again entered the annual time of the new year resolution and the attendant run on self-help books (and e-books) to help inspire us to improve ourselves, we even hear of such efforts — and their entirely unsurprising bad ends — on the scale of nations.
The bad end of self-improvement efforts is not surprising because it is so very nearly universal, but before we delve into the human nature — or is it a particularly American human nature?– that insists on believing that if only a measure of self-control were added to our lives then all things could improve, from melting pounds to eliminating deficits, perhaps it would be profitable to take a look at the one measure that did, once set one part of the world on the path toward prosperity, low corruption and — yes — democracy.
Let us consider first which countries have achieved this: The Netherlands came first, then England with Scotland close behind, then Germany. Also, on a different scale we have Switzerland, one half of Belgium, Canada (by extension, mostly, from England), Luxemburg and — eventually — the American Midwest. France was — and is — a laggard, and we all know of the state of South Europe and much of the rest of our little globe. Then let us consider what they have in common – and that is, without exception, a particular brand of Christianity — namely early forms of Protestantism that did away with the idea of salvation via works and substituted grace, or faith, into the equation.
Without exception these societies, when at the height of their development, far from mouthing platitudes about camels and need-eyes saw wealth instead as a big sign of divine favor rather than a result of sin, and so they honored the work of finance and commerce that were the main route to its acquisition. By contrast, all the other cultures denigrated all self-interest and viewed wealth acquisition with suspicion — not that they could succeed in banishing all wealth, but because gains were sinful it was a priori no worse to get at them through sinful means like theft or conquest.
To bring this overlong discourse back to where it started, the only way for a society to join the club of nations prosperous because of the efforts of their people rather than merely their minerals (or certain plant-based powders), one must begin by inviting preachers of the most intolerant, hell-fire breathing, patriarchal, Calvinist persuasion, setting them loose to convert the populace, and then waiting two or three hundred years for their efforts to begin to bear fruit. This would appear to work a great deal better than demonizing their wealthy for not wishing to give away large portions of their fortune or demagoguing the so-called “fair share” of taxation to pay for profligacies of the unproductive.
It is telling that whenever proponents of a political ideology discuss their particular project as the inevitable outcome of the natural process of history, they generally default to the messianic language of the Romantic-era Christian proselytes. Our current preoccupation with a mildly capitalistic democracy as the best and most-natural system of governance is the unquestioned policy of both the official and the chattering establishments, quite despite its recent paramount failures in Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan. Not even in the heat of the current presidential campaign are its premises being evenly remotely questioned.
While it is true that the welfare state owes its existence to Bismarck and his reforms, it is also true that Bismarck created it in order to defuse the much more radical agenda being advocated by the German Socialists, thus inaugurating the grand social democratic bargain that holds sway in Europe to this day — despite the cracks around its edges — and has been the cornerstone of the social democratic agenda in the United States since the New Deal. Continue reading
All the hand-wringing about the expanding income disparities in this country blithely ignores the fact that the Great Compression of the standard of living of the 1940s and 50s was a unique anomaly in the history if economic phenomena, and was only possible because the US was the only nation capable of supplying the global demand for goods and all possible competitors either lying in ruins or locked behind the Iron Curtain.
Those who advocate so strongly for a welfare state in the basis of Rawlsian principles of social justice usually neglect the well-established counter-principle of reciprocity that is inherent in the resulting master-client relationships. A one-way flow of resources from the better-off to those worse-off — whether “deserving” or not — creates both perverse incentives for those on the margin and, predictably, a tendency to backlash from taxpayers who, with at least some justification, feel exploited. Continue reading
Contra Marx and his latter-day epigones, it is not class struggle that shapes political and economic systems. Rather, it is the change in the what asset classes constitute main stores of wealth that determines shifts in the relative power of economic classes, and eventually of social classes. Continue reading